How to knit Fair Isle patterns
Many knitters tell us that they’d love to try Fair Isle colourwork knitting, but they think it’s going to be REALLY HARD. Well I would like to dispel this myth, and show you how simple and fun it really is! Get started by downloading our adorable free pattern, the Clayoquot Hat.
Start by choosing some lovely DK weight yarn. We recommend high-contrast colours so that this pattern really ‘pops’. We have a more in-depth discussion of choosing a palette for colourwork here.
Download the Clayoquot Hat pattern, choose your size, and get started. This design has a conventional construction: you cast on, work ribbing in the round, then knit a few rounds before starting the pattern.
To work the Fair Isle colourwork pattern, all you do is knit a few stitches in one colour, then switch to another colour, and knit a few stitches in that. The charts show just how many stitches to do in each colour.
If you are confused about how to read a knitting chart, we have a full tutorial here. For this pattern it is very simple – start with chart A, and work round one, reading the squares from right to left (because this is the direction you knit in when the RS of the work is facing you).
So for round 1, you will knit 2 sts with MC (main colour), then knit one stitch with CC1 (contrast colour 1), then knit one stitch with MC. That’s the 4-stitch repeat worked once, then you continue to repeat this pattern, again and again, to the end of the round. When you change colours, you draw the new yarn loosely across the back of the work, creating loose strands called ‘floats’.
Once you’ve finished round 1 of chart A, you simply proceed to work rounds 2, then 3. On round 2, you will be working with 3 colours, not just 2, but that round is only worked twice in the entire knit, so it’s not too much bother.
In terms of technique, you can use one hand to hold the yarn, then drop that yarn when you pick up the other yarn, OR you can hold one yarn in your right hand, and the other in your left to ‘throw’ with the right hand and ‘pick’ with the left. It doesn’t really matter – try both and see with what feels comfortable to you.
Like most techniques in knitting (and everything else I suppose), practice is what you really need to gain competence, but we have put together a few helpful tips below.
LOOSEN UP… this is supposed to be relaxing, right?!
One of the rookie mistakes when knitting fair isle for the first few times is to pull the yarn floats (the strands between the stitches knit in a given colour) tightly across the back of the work, which can compress the gauge of the fair-isle section relative to your stockinette stitch gauge.
There are a few ways to avoid this. If you know that when you knit fair-isle, you always have a tighter gauge than in stockinette, you can adjust for this by using larger needles (1-2 sizes up) for the stranded portion of the work. This will help to avoid a ‘squeezed’ section of fair isle that doesn’t match the rest of the gauge.
Another method, which I personally use, is to knit with the work inside out. This forces the yarn to be drawn along the outside of the cylinder of knitting, rather than along the inside of the cylinder. This means the floats will be longer by default.
DOMINANCE… it’s important in knitting too
In Fair Isle knitting, there is a term called ‘yarn dominance’. Essentially, the yarn that is drawn up from underneath the other yarn creates slightly larger stitches. This yarn, called the dominant one, ‘pops’ more in the colourwork pattern. So it is a beneficial habit to always carry the colour that you want to ‘pop’ underneath the other colour. This also results in the benefit that the backside of the work is very tidy looking and has a beautiful pattern in its own right! Very satisfying, if you’re a little bit OCD like me. Ysolda has a more in-depth discussion of why yarn dominance occurs, and how important it is.
When in doubt, BLOCK IT OUT
Ladies and Gentlemen, knitters all if you’ve gotten this far down the page, let me tell you how much I love blocking! When you are soaking a multi-colour project like the Clayoquot toque, add a little white vinegar to the soaking water, and don’t soak it for too long. This will help to prevent vivid colours from bleeding one into the other.
With this smooth, even yarn, and my relaxed even gauge, you can’t see so much of a difference between the pre-blocking and post-blocking fabrics. But with a ‘woolier’ wool and wonkier tension, you’ll find there is even more benefit to blocking.
I LOVE FAIR ISLE… what shall I knit next?
So once you’ve knit a Clayoquot toque for you (and maybe one for everybody else you know too), what will you knit next? We’ve got a number of cool colourwork projects for you:
Share the Knit Knowledge
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